APALA is a professional library organization dedicated to cultivating Asian Pacific American leadership through mentorship and professional engagement, advancing social justice, and providing opportunities for dialogue and networking to promote the needs of Asian/Pacific American professionals and those who serve Asian/Pacific American communities.
Every year, the association (APALA) honors and recognizes individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literature and artistic merit. This year, author Uma Krishnaswami won the award in the children’s literature category for her book, “Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh”.
Today at MUF, Uma talks about her award, her writing life over the years, and some of the key diversity issues in children’s and young adult literature.
Congratulations on the APALA award, Uma! What was it like winning the award for Step Up To the Plate, Maria Singh?
Uma: It’s a tremendous honor. Writing is such a solitary occupation. Even after all the work that goes into writing a book and nurturing it through successive revisions, through the editorial process and all the way to publication, you never know whether anyone’s going to pay attention to it. A book isn’t complete until readers have read it, and children can’t choose a book until some adult has first placed that book on a personal or library shelf. So the APALA award was a tremendous vote of confidence for my book. I’m deeply grateful.
In your interview at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations Blog, you mention that there is a groundswell movement with organizations like We Need Diverse Books and independent publishers like Lee & Low Books, Cinco Puntos Press, and Enchanted Lion to draw attention to diverse books as well as international and translated books. What are some initiatives that make these organizations and publishing houses effective?
Uma: Lee & Low was founded with a mission of diversifying children’s books, long before diversity became trendy. Their blog called early attention to the diversity gap in children’s publishing. Cinco Puntos is more specialized with its roots on the border of the US and Mexico, and they too have beautiful books like All Around Us by Xelena González and Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez.
To me, WNDB represents the next generation of writers and activists pushing for change. They are doing terrific work. They offer grants and awards for writers, retreats, internships in publishing, mentorships, book giveaways and they have been a powerful force in the movement to diversify not only books for young readers but the range of voices engaged in the creation and publication of those books. They are fierce and committed and they remind us that we can’t get complacent.
To what extent does incorrect representation of culture in diverse children’s books harbor the danger of inauthenticity and marginalize people of color?
Uma: I think it’s about complexity—being aware of how easy it is to resort to a stereotypical depiction of characters or a simplistic view of history. We have to be willing to do the work as writers to go beyond that, whoever we are. And we have to be respectful of the people we’re writing about, and aware of what our relationship is to those people. We have to know where our own boundaries and limitations lie. That is the best way to get around issues of inauthentic work. I’ll give you an example. There was a time when it was considered fine for a white writer to write an array of books, each set in a different country, each using a particular “foreign” culture as the driving plot element. So you’d have books getting rave reviews (we’re talking back in the 1990s) with, say, spunky girl characters, and all the settings would feel like tourist videos. The reviewers never got that, so who would even know, right? Well, young readers from those places, or from immigrant communities with roots in those places, would know. Of course they’d know. And they’d want to duck their heads under their desks when those books were being praised in classrooms. This certainly happened with books set in South Asian countries, written by well-meaning writers who’d never set foot in the region.
It’s changing. Publishers are more aware of the pitfalls of writing culturally specific books. But we can’t take our eyes off that target of diversity because it will keep moving and there will always be pushback.
From your experience of writing and teaching at Vermont College Of Fine Arts for many years, do you think the lack of adequate diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature is part of a broader set of issues relating to inclusivity?
Uma: Absolutely. Until diverse voices get included at every level—in student bodies and faculty at writing programs and retreats and conferences, and at every level of publishing—publishing and marketing and distribution choices will continue to be made with a narrow view.
What are some common misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about South Asian characters in North America? How do you see South Asian literature developing in the US in the foreseeable future?
Uma: I wrote about that years ago, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t studied a bunch of books lately to see if those trends persist. Do Americans still think Indian kids go to school on elephants? I have no idea.
But as to your second question, relative to literature for young readers, I see some very exciting new work coming out from talented writers. I’ll mention just a few: Sayantani DasGupta’s middle grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret. Book 2 in that series is out next year. It’s a wonderful mashup of mythic fantasy drawn from Bengali traditions, rollicking adventure, and utterly contemporary kid sensibility. Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar is historical fiction set against the backdrop of India’s independence movement. Nidhi Chanani’s graphic novel, Pashmina, takes on immigrant identity and the silence between a mother and a daughter with a fresh and genuine energy. I think what makes these books ring so true is that they come from deep, personal roots. In each, the author cares deeply about context and worldview, culture and connections. And so each is complicated, as all cultures are, but they’re not explained by the text. In each, the story comes first.
Not so much what I see but what I’d like to see: more YA, more humor—oh please, more humor! More stories for younger readers. Chapter books. Fantasy. Fewer oppression tales about girls fighting unjust societies.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out as a writer?
Uma: What a good question. I had to think about this.
At first, I often felt misunderstood. Early on, someone once asked me why I didn’t just write about “regular” kids instead of always focusing on kids with Indian connections—as if that was somehow “irregular!” And the opposite as well—a few in the Indian community were affronted that I’d put a divorce into my first novel, Naming Maya, as if that reflected badly on us as an immigrant group or something. So I sometimes wonder if it would have easier if those criticisms hadn’t cropped up. But I don’t think so. They gave me something to push against, and in all they strengthened my resolve to keep going.
If anything, I wish no one had given me any advice at all. Much of the advice I did get about conflict, character development, story structure, and so on never fit any of the stories I was writing, which led to a lot of wasted time while I tried unsuccessfully to make my stories fit into boxes that weren’t built for them. In the end I did best when I dumped a lot of it and paid more attention to my own instincts.
To learn more about Uma and her books, visit her website at https://umakrishnaswami.org/.